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The torch relay for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics got underway Thursday from ancient Olympia in Greece, with the sun's rays igniting the silver torch during a break in the clouds. 

Torch's origins

A group of Bombardier engineers in Quebec designed the 2010 Olympic torch, drawing inspiration from Canada's long winter season, said team leader Bruno Contois. 

"You've got those curves and ridges all over the place that represent snowdrifts," he told CBC News. "At the same time those curves [were] inspired by the sports we do here in Canada during the winter, skiing or skating, that leave traces behind you."

The torch is wind-resistant up to 60 km/h, can withstand temperatures as low as –40 C and is safe to carry at altitudes reaching 2,100 metres.

The torch can also endure "snow, rain and sleet," Contois said.

The ceremony kicked off an eight-day relay through Greece before the torch is handed over to Games organizers.

On Oct. 30, the flame will arrive in Canada for the biggest-ever relay, covering 45,000 kilometres over 106 days and ending in Vancouver on Feb. 12, the opening day of the 2010 Winter Games.

"The flame has a unique power to unite us as countries and as people," said John Furlong, chief executive officer of the Vancouver organizing committee, who was at the ceremony.

"Today we create a bridge between ancient Olympia and a young Canada. We are joined together by common ideals and an eagerness to make the world a better place through fair play, respect and a commitment to peace and the power of sport."

Greek actress Maria Nafpliotou, playing the role of a high priestess, said a prayer to Apollo and released a white dove after tilting a torch into a parabolic mirror aimed at the sun.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and federal Sports Minister Gary Lunn were among those in attendance Thursday.

Cape Spear, N.L., to Old Crow, Yukon

"It does make it real," Campbell told CBC News.

 "As I was there today, I thought of the thousands of people who've been pulling for this to happen for almost a decade now. I thought of [VANOC chairman] Jack Poole who's such an exceptional team leader for all of us in bringing people together in giving them the Olympic spirit, the 90 communities around British Columbia who are preparing for the torch to arrive ... and over 1,000 in Canada."

The Canadian portion of the relay stretches from as far east as Cape Spear, N.L., south to Point Pelee, Ont., north to Alert, Nunavut, and west to Old Crow, Yukon.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge was also present Thursday as hundreds of spectators sprawled on the sloped, grassy hills on the site of the ancient Greek stadium that hosted the ancient games.

"The Olympic torch and flame are symbols of the values and ideals which lie at the heart of the Olympic Games," said Rogge.

Nafpliotou lit the torch for Vassilis Dimitriadis, the first to run out of the stadium at the temple of Hera. The Greek slalom skier, dressed in winter gear, took the torch towards its destination for the end of Thursday, Kalavyrta.

The relay in Greece will cover 2,180 kilometres, culminating at Panathenian Stadium in Athens on Oct. 29.

With files from The Canadian Press